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Mystery of the Kerala Poll Results

The United Democratic Front was expected to easily defeat the Left Democratic Front in the 2011 elections in Kerala - but it came very close to suffering a defeat. Just one person - V S Achuthanandan - with his incredible political sense and timing almost pulled off what no chief minister since 1977 had done. The irony is that VS' targeting of the leaders of the Indian Union Muslim League and the Congress only served to consolidate the minority votes in the two parties. The UDF may have finally won the polls but a fractious coalition ruling with a thin majority can only mean an unstable government and possible mid-term elections.

COMMENTARY

public memory, Kunhalikutty had appeared

Mystery of the Kerala Poll Results

to have survived the scandal after the courts gave him a clean chit. The issue suddenly turned live once again when one of the N P Rajendran League leader’s close relatives went public

The United Democratic Front was expected to easily defeat the Left Democratic Front in the 2011 elections in Kerala – but it came very close to suffering a defeat. Just one person – V S Achuthanandan – with his incredible political sense and timing almost pulled off what no chief minister since 1977 had done. The irony is that VS’ targeting of the leaders of the Indian Union Muslim League and the Congress only served to consolidate the minority votes in the two parties. The UDF may have finally won the polls but a fractious coalition ruling with a thin majority can only mean an unstable government and possible mid-term elections.

N P Rajendran (nprindran@gmail.com) is a political columnist and deputy editor of

Mathrubhumi.

V
S Achuthanandan attempted the impossible. He tried, virtually singlehandedly, to reverse a firmly set trend and thus save his government from being swamped by an anti-incumbency wave. Since 1977, no Kerala chief minister has been able to continue in office after completing a five-year term. VS, as he is popularly known, almost pulled it off. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) would have retained power if it had won just three more seats in the 2011 assembly election.

After the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and the local bodies polls the following year, there was hardly any doubt that the LDF would be routed in the battle for control of the legislative assembly. The United Democratic Front (UDF) had swept both elections and the results indicated that it could win at least 100 of the 140 seats in the assembly. Until the beginning of 2011, public resentment against the LDF and the “party” was palpable. It was against this background that VS set out to turn the tide against his opponents. The 87-year-old seemed to defy physical limitations as he campaigned through the length and breadth of the state despite the heat of summer.

VS was the only leader from either front, national or state-level, who attracted huge crowds to his rallies. With his well-honed practice of picking up a few issues and hammering away at them, the octogenarian seized the initiative in the campaign. Circumstances also helped. Sensational issues, which had lain dormant for long, suddenly burst into life during the lead up to the election. The S upreme Court sentenced R Balakrishna Pillai, irrigation minister in a former UDF government, to a year’s imprisonment in a corruption case. Muslim League leader and industries minister in the 2001-06 UDF government, P K Kunhalikutty, was dragged back into the whorl of a sexscandal that had erupted 15 years ago. While the matter had not slipped from

may 28, 2011

with the allegation that Kunhalikutty had escaped punishment only b ecause he had bribed judges.

VS is not the type of politician who will fail to take advantage of these kinds of openings. He probably even felt vindi cated in latching on to these issues. He had led the assaults against Pillai and Kunhalikutty with ferocious zeal when the two scandals had first erupted. Nothing better illustrates the strength of VS’ d etermination to finish his political enemies than the fact that he was the only man to pursue Pillai all the way to the S upreme Court when most people in the state had forgotten the details of the case including which year it was that the graft was first brought to light.

In the 2006 assembly election campaign, VS had whipped the resentment against Kunhalikutty (and a UDF government that was presumably protecting him) by promising that he would make those held guilty in the sex scandal “walk the streets wearing handcuffs”. The rhetoric had gone down well with women voters, who form a majority in the state’s electorate. VS had failed to fulfil this promise during the five years he ruled but he had no qualms about raising the slogan after the new allegations against Kunhalikutty were aired. Surprisingly, the slogan resonated this time as well and the UDF could not blunt its impact by pointing to the disconnect between promise and d elivery.

The campaign was actually doubleedged. Even as VS was pushing the UDF onto the defensive he was signalling to his own party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), that he was still indispensable. The CPI(M) found out the hard way that this was the truth. In the long drawn-out turf war between VS and the party’s powerful state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, the latter had seemingly triumphed. Pinarayi had tried to rid himself of VS’ trouble-making presence by orchestrating the denial of a ticket to the veteran in the 2006 elections. The politburo eventually

vol xlvi no 22

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

intervened to ensure that VS was allowed to contest.

It was the tremendous pro-VS wave that led to the LDF’s sweeping victory in 2006. However, the power struggle in the party became even more intense after VS became chief minister. VS’ hands were tied by the party state committee which continued to be in the control of Pinarayi. For five years, VS gave the impression that he was nothing more than a lame-duck chief minister constantly engaged in a futile struggle with the state party hierarchy.

As the countdown began for the 2011 poll, the Pinarayi faction appeared to think that VS’ popularity had declined and that there would be no backlash if he was sidelined. With this thought in mind, Pinarayi and his cohorts once again declined to recommend VS’ nomination for a ticket. They had grossly misjudged the public mood. If neutral voters were appalled, party workers were incensed. Protest marches were taken out even in known strongholds of the Pinarayi faction. History was repeated but it was a farce only for the political opponents of the CPI(M). The news about the politburo intervening once again to ensure that VS was given a ticket was celebrated in the streets and the media. The masses responded in an astonishing fashion. With his image as an unrelenting fighter and a “Mr Clean” to whom a lot of injustice had been done, VS once again became the darling of the crowds, especially the women voters.

Pro-VS Wave

The real story about the 2011 Kerala assembly elections was that it manifested a pro-VS wave. If the veteran had not been so prominent in the picture, the LDF would have ended up with anything between 30 and 40 seats. That something unusual had happened was evident by the end of polling day, 13 April. The voter turnout was over 80% suggesting that there had been a wave. But a wave in favour of which front was the question. As the vote count progressed it became evident that no coalition was headed for a landslide. But the real surprise was that the LDF was running neck-to-neck, even overtaking the UDF in the “leadings” at certain stages. At the end the LDF finished with a very creditable 68 seats to the UDF’s 72.

VS had succeeded in neutralising what would have otherwise been a justifiable anti-incumbency wave. In a state where, after 1981, the change of governments e very five years was the norm, this was a Herculean achievement. The two fronts share 90% of the votes and the remainder fluctuates in tune with the prevailing wave. This small margin decides the result. Vote difference between the two fronts was slender during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982, power shifted from one front to another with the difference of just 1.8% of the votes, and in 1991 with just 1.3%. Over the last two elections the gulf had widened – it was 5.4% in 2001 and 6% in 2006. In 2011, the gap narrowed once again with the difference being just 0.89%.

It was not the great performance of the LDF government under VS that helped it dispel the anti-incumbency mood. It was the “morality” politics raised by VS that helped the LDF run neck-to-neck with the UDF. But there are unexplainable paradoxes in the final verdict. VS’ main onslaught was against supposed sexual offenders and his specific target was Kunhalikutty. But the VS campaign only helped Kunhalikutty strengthen his position in the League as well as among the Muslims in general. The Muslims appeared to have regarded VS’ crusade as an attempt to weaken their community by defaming their most prominent leader. This perception helped the Muslim League recapture the strongholds it lost in 2006. The Muslim League had the best electoral performance ever, winning 20 of the 24 seats it contested. Another person targeted by VS was the Congress leader and former chief minister Oommen Chandy against whom too VS raised allegations of corruption. But the Christian community, to which Oommen Chandy belongs, stood firmly behind the UDF.

It was the good performance of the Muslim League and Kerala Congress – the party that draws support mainly from Christians – that helped the UDF get the slender majority. Muslims constitute 23% and Christians 19% of the Kerala population. Congress had 62 members in the assembly when the UDF ruled between 2001 and 2006. It had 34 seats in the assembly in the 2006-11 period, when it was in the opposition. Now, though the Congress is the leading party in the ruling coalition, it has only 38 members in the assembly, less than the leading opposition party, the CPI(M), which has 45. The dependence of the secular Indian National Congress on communal parties has only increased a fter this election. On the other hand, the main weakness of the LDF too stands exposed. Even after six decades of unending efforts and experimentation, the Left has failed to build a strong base in the two religious minorities. The CPI(M) and CPI are Hindu parties in that sense.

It is not going to be safe and smooth sailing for the UDF. Never before has a ministry taken office with such a slender majority. The UDF has to cope with all its inherent disabilities and contradictions. There is going to be a hard power struggle among the partners for every loaf of bread that power offers. If it was in any other state, or if the opposition was led by any party other than the CPI(M), the ministry’s chances of survival would have been minimal. The UDF leaders cannot rest content even though the CPI(M) has declared that it is going to honour the verdict of the people and is not going to wreck the UDF boat midstream. That only means it will not wrest power by encouraging defections. But, any two members of any party in the UDF can defect and that will lead to midterm elections. Even the LDF might not be able to save the UDF ministry!

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s hopes of opening its account in the assembly did not materialise this time as well. It came second in two constituencies. The only consolation for the party is that its vote share in the state rose from 4.71% to 6.2%. Not bad, considering the fact that it has always been accused of selling its votes during the elections to either the Left or Right!

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 28, 2011 vol xlvi no 22

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